Barack Obama: The Third Way Between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

After Saturday night’s debate, I pointed out that there was a major tension between the two leading Democratic candidates when it comes to foreign policy. Bernie Sanders’ approach is based primarily on principle, and in particular deep hesitation about foreign intervention. Hillary Clinton’s approach is more pragmatic, based on years of close involvement with the Middle East. So the question for a Democratic voter is whether to choose the candidate who knows far more about foreign policy (as her answers showed Saturday) but also far more hawkish than the average Democrat (tending to back U.S. military involvement in Libya and Syria), or to choose the candidate who is more politically in line with the party but much less well-versed in the issues.

Right on cue, to show how these represent extremes of the party, comes Barack Obama, splitting the difference between the two of them during an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep:

There are basically two things that I've heard people say. One would be we're just going to bomb more, and that I would advise is not a wise course. You bomb ISIL. You're not trying to bomb innocent people and that requires intelligence and confidence in our military to be able to develop the kinds of targets that we need ....

The other new thing that people have suggested would be some variation of the no-fly zone or a safe zone. This is something we've been talking about for three or four years. The challenge there is that ISIL doesn't have an air force, so the damage done there is not against ISIL, it's against the Syrian regime.

The first part is a rebuke to Republicans who want to send in ground troops. The second part is a rebuke to both Sanders and Clinton. Unlike Sanders, Obama isn’t so quick to reject use of force per se; he’s more pragmatic, like Clinton. But unlike Clinton, he’s more discerning about when he will use force. (Keep in mind that she was a major agitator for American involvement in Libya, and that she unsuccessfully lobbied him to do more in Syria.)

If you’re a Democrat who likes Obama’s approach to the world, which of these divergences from his view do you want: Sanders’s or Clinton’s?